The Dirty Story of Your Single Use Water Bottle

Most of us don’t like to think about the ‘dirty’ part of our food. We prefer our meats to look nothing like the animal it once was. We grab an orange without two thoughts to how far that fruit might have traveled in order for us to be on store shelves in January, and when we are thirsty, we grab a case of water without two thoughts to its history from the local grocery store.

Unfortunately, no matter where you turn in the food industry there’s something to feel guilty about, and with so many people priced out of environmentally sound options, sometimes all you can do is try not to think about it.

While there has been a lot of attention on the food industry with articles about food waste, burping cows, and too much sugar, water bottles have been seen as relatively benign until now.

Water is without a doubt the healthiest drink on the planet, but bottled water has a severe environmental cost to it, and it’s not just in the plastic waste from the water bottle.

Water Theft

Big companies like Nestle have to get their water from somewhere. In 2018, Nestle was given permission to double the amount of water they took out of the great lakes, despite 80,945 public comments against letting a foreign company take advantage of the great lakes, and just 70 in favor of it.

Meanwhile during this argument, 12 people died from Legionnaire’s disease in Flint, Michigan, and many more have suffered from lead poisoning and other water contaminants just two hours away from the clean water source Nestle is hoovering up.

This isn’t the only place water is being drained to the outrage of citizens. They’re also drying up water sheds and creeks in California National Forests, during droughts, all without paying a dime beyond a cheap permit.

Technically this is legal for them to do, so by law it’s not stealing. Then again, before the government forced the food industry to stop, it was considered totally okay to poison food and sell it, even if people died. Technically, that wasn’t murder, since “Buyer Beware” was the law before food regulation was a thing.

Water Travel

Drying up our national forests and taking from those in water crisis isn’t the only environmental cost of bottled water. Some types of bottled water travel long distances in order to get to your home, such as Fiji water, which is shipped from—well—Fiji. 5,000 miles of carbon emitting shipping adds up, and Fiji isn’t the only water company out there that sources and ships their water from excessively far away.

Fiji water has made efforts to green wash its company in the past, and was sued over its claims to be carbon negative, which is extremely misleading.

As it is, the simple truth is that water is heavy, and the farther it has to travel to get to you the bigger the carbon footprint.

The Bottles

Once the water reaches a bottling plant, the carbon footprint gets a lot greater, about 2,000 times greater than the environmental impact of turning on the tap. Fill up your favorite bottled water bottle about a quarter of the way, and that’s about how much crude oil is needed for a plastic water bottle that will be used once and thrown away or in just 9% of cases, recycled.

Cancer causing chemicals

BPA was a big thing in the media a decade ago, when scientists discovered that BPA works as an endocrine disrupter and mimics estrogen in the body. By law, BPA can no longer be used in baby bottles or tippy cups, and many water bottles now have labels indicating they are BPA free.

Unfortunately, while it is true that these BPA free water bottles don’t contain BPA, they do contain bisphenols, which work in the exact same way. Rather than solving the problem, they simply hide the issue with cloak and dagger style changes.

These chemicals aren’t just bad if you somehow ingest the plastic. They can leach into the water itself, especially if it has been sitting on the shelf for a long time or exposed to heat or sunlight, as in being left in a hot car.

Cool refreshing drink of micro-plastics

In 2018, the World Health Organization launched an investigation into bottled water after a study found that over 90% of all bottled water had micro-plastics in it. In a sample of 250 water bottles, the most polluted of the group had 10,000 pieces of micro-plastics floating in it.

The bottled water tested weren’t some off brand in a third world country either. They were some of the best selling brands in the world, and some of the pieces were large enough to be visible.

As it is we already ingest a surprising amount of plastics every day, but drinking bottled water doubles that amount.

Not recycled

Collectively around the world we use 1,000,000 single use plastic water bottles per minute. Of those water bottles, 91% will never be recycled. Most of these bottles are sent to landfill, where they will spend the next 400 years releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, killing wildlife such as birds that will feed small pieces to their young, and leaching chemicals into ground water.

When water bottles are recycled, they seldom make it back to becoming another bottle, and are instead downgraded into clothes, rugs, or other materials.

What you can do

The best thing to do is to get your water from the tap, into a stainless steel water bottle with absolutely no plastic. Of course, that’s not going to be a solution for everyone.

I am one of those people who can’t (well, won’t) drink tap water. Most of the zero waste blogs expect you to just slurp from the tap, and seem blind to the fact that it tastes like a disgusting stew of chemicals. (It has fewer contaminants than bottled water because cleaning fluid is apparently not a contaminant.) As it is, I had a hard enough time switching from favorites like soda to water in the first place.

Take away the relatively clean taste of my favorite bottled water brands and I’d probably just drink a lot more soda. If you’re like this, you can still drink water and reduce your carbon at the same time, using a filtered reusable water bottle.

I particularly liked the nalgene filtered water bottle. Although it is plastic, it is designed to last forever, and the filter is 100% recyclable—after you have used it to replace 550 single use water bottles. Best of all if you get the green colored nalgene, it doesn’t leach chemicals after being exposed to UV.

Single use plastic water bottles are a frightening trend that needs to be stopped, and you can help by switching to a reusable water bottle, and saying no to plastic waste.

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